Revisiting ‘Be A Clown’ From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

Revisiting ‘Be A Clown’ From ‘Batman: The Animated Series’

The Joker turns assassin in an episode about fathers and sons -- real, imagined, and lost.
Warren Henry
By

Spoilers ahead.

The title of “Be A Clown” pays obvious homage to the classic Cole Porter tune. Of course, all the world no longer loves a clown. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy put an end to that sentiment, along with a host of creepy or evil clowns – including The Joker, who makes his third series appearance here.

The Clown Prince of Crime also begins to evolve a bit in this episode. Previously, the Joker has focused on high-visibility crimes against the general citizenry of Gotham City to bring attention and infamy upon himself. Here, he embarks on a political assassination when Mayor Hill affronts his sense of (dis)honor by comparing him to Batman.

The Joker also has previously kidnaped prominent citizens. Here, when the mayor’s son seeks to join him (albeit while in disguise), he shows only a moment of pique before warming to the idea of an apprentice. Holding the child for ransom does not seem to occur to him.

Granted, the Joker may be willing to expose his new charge to danger. But how different is this than Bruce Wayne taking Dick Grayson under his wing? Perhaps this evil clown was enraged because Mayor Hill’s comments struck too close to the mark. It is a common trope beyond superhero stories for the villain to suggest that he or she and the hero are not so different. The twist here is that the Joker cannot stand a third party noticing it.

Plot Synopsis

The episode opens at the construction site for “Gotham Acres: A Fun Place to Be” (perhaps the urban counterpart to Green Acres, a place where Eva Gabor might live). Mayor Hill addresses the assembled crowd, touting the project as a symbol of a new, safer Gotham.

Hill is interrupted by a getaway car pursued by the police. When the getaway car crashes, several hoods jump out and fire automatic weapons at the police and the crowd. Batman swings into the fray atop a girder carried by a moving crane, quickly depositing the hoods in a garbage dumpster.

After the shootout, reporter Summer Gleeson questions Hill about public safety; he denounces outlaws, including the Joker and the Batman. In his lair, the Joker watches Hill’s diatribe and becomes enraged at being lumped in with his nemesis. He throws a pie at his television screen. He seizes on Hill’s comment about making Gotham as safe as his own mansion as the germ for his revenge plan.

Hill’s mansion, as it turns out, is being decorated for the birthday party of the mayor’s son, Jordan. More accurately, it is a political event for the mayor decorated as a birthday party. When the mayor interrupts Jordan – who is performing magic tricks for some stuffed animals in his room – to summon him to the party, Jordan notes the only children invited were those of the political guests.

The sole element of fun is the hired clown, Jekko, who entertains everyone with juggling and magic tricks. Jordan asks Jekko how to become a magician. The lisping, cackling clown advises three steps: run away, find a great magician, and steal his act.

Bruce Wayne arrives at the party with a sizable gift. Mayor Hill tries to escort Jordan away from Jekko to receive the gift, which causes Jordan to storm out of the party in a bad PR moment for the mayor. Mayor Hill apologizes to Bruce, saying: “You know kids.” Bruce drily replies: “Not really.”

However, Bruce senses something wrong upon hearing Jekko’s vaguely familiar, high-pitched laugh. He also sees the clown top the birthday cake using a sparkler candle with a picture of the Joker’s face.

Bruce elbows his way through the crowd and fakes tripping to knock the cake into the swimming pool with the birthday gift. The cake explodes in the pool, splashing but not injuring the guests.

Mayor Hill summons the police, who find the real Jekko bound and stripped to his underwear down the road from the mansion. The mayor also learns Jordan is missing and shows remorse for using his son as a political prop. As a video from the party plays, Wayne sees Jekko claim he studied under the Great Prosciutto, who performed at a now-defunct amusement park in Gotham.

Jordan, after leaving the party, hid inside Jekko’s truck, which the Joker drives to his hideout at the abandoned amusement park. Jordan approaches the Joker before he has removed the Jekko disguise. The Joker is momentarily angry, but decides to let Jordan assist him, noting the child followed the first step of his advice.

The Joker begins Jordan’s training with a sword-swallowing trick. Jordan objects, given to possibility he will cut himself. The Joker observes, “if it wasn’t risky, I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

Batman’s Arrival

The lesson is interrupted by an alarm heralding Batman’s arrival. Jordan, believing he is playing a prank, lures Batman to enter a theater building. The Joker tries but fails to strike Batman with several razor-edged playing cards. But the Joker succeeds with the ace of spades, which explodes in a cloud of knockout gas that fells the caped crusader.

Batman awakens, straight-jacketed and hanging upside-down in a water tank of the sort Houdini famously escaped. Batman quickly sheds his bonds, causing the Joker to remark: “They don’t make straight-jackets like they used to… I should know.”

The Joker nevertheless starts filling the tank with water. Jordan rebels and tries to break the glass with an axe. The Joker stops Jordan, who flees further into the park with the Joker in pursuit. Only now does the Joker shed the Jekko disguise. Meanwhile, Batman frees his legs, which he uses to break through the cracked glass of the tank.

The Joker discovers Jordan hiding in one of the cars of the Twin Terrors rollercoaster. He sees Batman approaching and decides to activate the ride, jumping into one of the trains with Jordan. The Joker instructs Jordan – paraphrasing Bette Davis from “All About Eve” – to “buckle up; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

Batman follows the Joker in the rollercoaster’s second train. As the cars bank and loop, the Joker tosses exploding Kewpie dolls toward Batman. The lead car of Batman’s train is destroyed; the train derails, demolishing a section of track.

Batman escapes by leaping into the Joker’s train. The two struggle. The Joker fails to gas Batman with his boutonniere. Batman kicks the Joker from the train, sending him falling into a body of water next to the ride. Batman then gains enough of Jordan’s trust to rescue him by grappling gun before the remaining train is derailed by the wrecked track.

Jordan is reunited with Mayor Hill at the mansion. The mayor apologizes to Jordan and hugs him as Batman watches from the darkness.

Deeper, But Subtle, Meaning

“Be A Clown” is a well-plotted installment in the series. Aside from the Joker’s motivation, Mayor Hill and his son have their own narrative arcs, grounded in some of the less pretty realities of politics. The mayor’s remorse when Jordan disappears is also a good subtext for younger viewers.

Moreover, while never explicitly stated, Jordan’s assisting the Joker in a prank on Batman and his hesitation to accept the Batman’s rescue at the climax may be informed by his father’s antipathy toward the Dark Knight. Jordan undoubtedly had heard through his father that Batman was no better than the Joker, a message the child had to overcome to save himself. That is a subtle bit of characterization which probably lands more with older viewers.

Equally subtle is the final moment, in which Batman does not advance his own cause by confronting the mayor by taking direct credit for the rescue. Instead, Batman allows Jordan to enjoy an emotional reunion with his father. It is what a man driven by the loss of his parents would do.

Warren Henry is the nom de plume of an attorney practicing in the State of Illinois.

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